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English Only Ringleader Eric Crafton Is Driven More by Ideals Than Politics—Which May Be Worse

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Kasar Abdulla speaks English, though it is not her native tongue. A Kurdish refugee, she still remembers the day her aunt and uncle were buried in her homeland. Felled by Saddam's poison gas, they were laid to rest in the hard soil of the mountain pass that would eventually deliver the rest of her family to safety.

Fargo had been their right, the home the U.S. government gave them. But Nashville was where they chose to live. They drove down in a caravan when Kasar was 14 years old. Years later, when she heard about a Nashville man who said he wanted to help the city's immigrant population, she decided to attend one of his meetings.

When it was her turn to speak, Kasar stood up. She told the man how proud she was to have learned his native tongue. She told him what English meant to her family—its rightful place as the language of freedom. The language of the "dream nation."

If she expected some recognition of how far she and her family had come, that's not what she got. His response was more like a slap. It was every person's duty, he said, the minute they stepped on American soil, to acclimate. Circumstances didn't matter. His message was clear: Learn English, or else.

Kasar left the meeting with tears in her eyes.

"He just shattered the image I had of the United States," she says. "Especially the image I had of Tennessee."

And yet, when you meet Eric Crafton for the first time, it's hard not to think something along the lines of: He sure doesn't seem like a monster. Granted, he's sitting somewhere he feels comfortable: his favorite meat-and-three in Bellevue, where the waitresses act as if he has a tab. But it's hard to reconcile the public image of the thrice-elected District 22 Metro Council member—who's been vilified, justly or not, as a Bible-thumpin' bumpkin—with the doughy beige windbreaker sitting across the table.

Crafton's base expression is one of cautious serenity. Half-lidded eyes and a round face devoid of angles give off a sense of peaceful immovability, both in belief and in spirit. Picture an Easter Island statue come to life. Yet many years ago, before he was accused of being Nashville's answer to Hitler, Eric Crafton was, like Kasar Abdulla, a stranger in a strange land who didn't speak the language.

So why is this guy the staunch proponent of the most divisive and confrontational piece of immigration legislation in the city's history—the notorious "English Only" ordinance, which would force Metro to conduct all city business in English, from registry of deeds to driver's licenses?

It was 1990 in Jacksonville, Fla. Crafton was a 22-year-old ensign on his first assignment. Six months removed from graduation at Vanderbilt and, more recently, war college in Rhode Island, Crafton was settling into his new life when he found out everything would be changing. His boat, the U.S.S. Mobile Bay, was being restationed to Japan.

Cribbing from books-on-tape and for-dummies manuals he'd grabbed before shipping out, Crafton armed himself with stacks of 3x5 flash cards. In between tweaking the Bay's guidance system, his duty as electrical engineer on the ship, Crafton studied on a bottom bunk in the Swamp, the shoulder-to-shoulder cubby where the youngest officers made their home. While others passed the time with poker and VHS tapes, Crafton acclimated himself to the reality he'd face upon landfall: a new world of sounds and characters that were utterly foreign.

By the time the Bay reached Panama's shortcut, Crafton had the basics down. After reaching land six weeks later, he felt comfortable enough walking into the port town of Yokosuka on his own. It was only then, Crafton says, that the real learning began.

"When I went to the water company to pay my bill, electric company to pay my bill, wherever, guess what language that was done in?" he asks. "I learned pretty quickly because I had to."

Crafton returned to the States four years later with a combat medal, a fluent grasp of Japanese and having met his future wife. He'd taken what for some might have been a short-lived detour in an unfamiliar culture and found a way not only to incorporate it into his own life but use it to his advantage. He also came back with a hardened view of how the world works and how it doesn't.

These views would manifest themselves more than a decade later. Now Crafton—the magna cum laude bilingual success story—has become the perfect front man for what was, and remains, Nashville's most unpopular idea.

Assuming a lawsuit doesn't derail it first, the English Only matter is scheduled for a costly, controversial special election Jan. 22. And neither outcome, pass or fail, seems to portend the end of the issue. Already it represents something of a victory for Crafton, who was clearly underestimated by the mayor's office. It tried to sandbag the issue on a technicality, only to have the stubborn Crafton bull on through with a public petition.

Is Crafton just an opportunist? Is he the two-dimensional doctrinaire widely mocked in the local media (including this paper)? Or is he a well-intentioned ideologue who reflects a larger swath of the city than progressives want to admit? On the eve of a bitter election, even Crafton's opponents say he must be regarded as a force to reckon with.

"He's not a one-dimensional character that can be written off as an ideological bigot," says Mike Jameson, the District 6 council rep, one of English Only's most outspoken foes. "I still disagree with his views and tactics, but I wouldn't dismiss him."

Eric Crafton's face doesn't light up often, but it beams when he talks about something he loves. Like history. Today the topic is post-Revolutionary War America, Southern assumption and the founding of a capital city. On the end table right now is Founding Brothers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the challenges faced by the new nation's leaders. Ironically enough, the detail that sticks with him is compromise.

"One of the things they worked out, as kind of a sweetener to get the Southern states to go along, was to put the capitol along the Potomac (River)," Crafton says. "And part of that land was owned by George Washington. I read that last night and thought it was so interesting."

This naked curiosity is startling, if only because Crafton seems so inflexibly convinced on most every other subject. In many ways, Crafton is the perfect man to carry English Only to the ramparts. Not only is he able to claim his own struggles as a motivation, he's also not the guy you'd expect to sponsor something so seemingly reactionary. To put it bluntly, he's not an idiot.

"When I meet someone who is an absolutist, I sort of make assumptions about them, including that they're not very bright," says Jameson, a vocal Crafton critic. "Eric, I have to begrudgingly concede, is an intelligent guy."

Those smarts are hard-won. If you forget that, Crafton will remind you, time and time again. His self-mythologizing inspires mixed metaphors. Think Horatio Alger crossed with Oedipus, minus the messy bit about wanting to sleep with his mom.

"I think a lot of what [Eric] tries to accomplish in life is because of his dad," says Jon Crisp, former head of the Davidson County GOP and a close Crafton ally. "As a young man he was always trying to please his dad and prove to him that he could be a success. He put a chip on his shoulder."

The Ballad of Crafton's Formative Years is a three-parter, each with an underlying theme of self-reliance that Papa, one of Nashville's first EMT chiefs, drilled into him from an early age.

Act One: fifth grade. Young Crafton takes the 55 cents he's given every day for lunch and buys five packs of Now-and-Laters. He flips them to fellow Gower Elementary schoolmates for a nickel a piece, a heavy markup. The ruse ends when a teacher finds out and calls his parents. Crafton is suspended from patrols for a week, but his dad doesn't mind.

"I think he was proud," says Crafton. "He told them, 'I always said he'd have to pay his own way.' "

Act Two comes three years later, at Hillwood High. When Crafton's a freshman, his dad pulls him aside for a man-to-man. When it comes to college, he says, the options are limitless. Crafton is ecstatic: "Great," he thinks. "One less thing to worry about." Until his dad delivers the punchline: That doesn't mean you're getting a dime from me.

Which brings us to Act Three. Crafton's only path to Vanderbilt was an ROTC scholarship. That covered tuition and books, but the extra four grand needed for room and board was still on him. So when Crafton came back for his sophomore year after a summer at sea, with only $800 to his name, he improvised.

Crafton spent his whole wad on 10x10 remnants from Nashville City Carpet. Not a car. Not business suits. Somehow he knew there'd be a market for rugs among the incoming freshmen, who'd be looking for a cheap alternative to the cold linoleum in their dorms.

"Ended up making all $4,000 in one day," he says with a chuckle. "Vanderbilt instituted a rule after that saying you couldn't vend on the streets. Then they started selling carpet in the bookstore."

The ballad helps to explain one uncontested part of Crafton's rep: his devotion to all things educational. One fellow council member describes Crafton as almost devoid of affect, like "when you see these Lifetime movies with the father who's kind of a jerk but it all comes out that he has mild autism. That's what Eric reminds me of." But even that colleague acknowledges that he's largely gotten it right when it comes to schools.

Crafton was one of the first to demand Metro be measured against other districts. If not, he warned three years ago, the state would be forced to intervene. Twice last year, as that prophecy turned to reality, Crafton broke down during council sessions, pushing his mic away to compose himself.

"I got a scholarship to Vanderbilt with a public education so I know the system can work. I hate to see children not taken care of 'cuz that's the equalizer," Crafton says today. "Education is the great equalizer, isn't it?"

To a degree, that only makes it harder to fathom his zeal for English Only. His most generous critics say the measure may be well intentioned, but it still reflects an intellectual blind spot the size of a Home Depot. Learning a new language with the full backing and resources of the American Navy, they argue, is so removed from the life of your average Nashville non-native speaker that it might as well take place on another planet.

At worst, others charge, Crafton is a spear-carrying one-man infantry in the Culture Wars, a man who professes to revere history while ignoring the lessons it offers. They accuse Crafton, who only three years ago was waving a war-on-Christmas red flag before the council, of deflecting charges of hate-mongering and bigotry by wrapping himself in the multicultural sarong of his own family—his Japanese wife and Mexican brother-in-law.

Determining where Crafton really falls is made even harder because he doesn't fit the blunt-headed troglodyte stereotype that English Only would suggest. His council colleagues frequently invoke the Crafton Preamble: We may disagree on 99 percent of the issues, but gosh-darn it, he's actually a decent guy.

But those people willing to give Crafton his due still point out a glaring crack in the armor. For all his supposed intelligence, Crafton is so alarmingly left-brained it's a wonder his head isn't permanently tilted.

"He thinks like an engineer, which he is," says District 23 council representative Emily Evans, who sits next to Crafton. "There's a yes or a no, a black and a white, or a do and a don't. Liberal arts majors like me see lots of gray between the spaces. Eric doesn't. That's just the way he's put together."

Crafton certainly saw no gray in English Only when he and his friend and adviser Jon Crisp devised it a couple of years ago. Crisp says that English Only came to be during one of his and Crafton's regular spitball sessions.

"Eric and I pick up on topics that we think are timely," he says. "And you know as well as I do that any given day I can make an issue out of illegal immigration."

Indeed, when Crafton rolled out his first iteration of English Only in 2006, his hyperbole was excessive even by the standards of right-wing bluster. For a bill that was pure window dressing, Crafton invoked nothing less than the fall of the Roman Empire.

"It was overrun with illegal immigrants: Visigoths, Franks, Anglos, Saxons and Vandals, who at first worked as servants but then came so fast they did not learn the Latin language or the Roman form of government," he rumbled in a Tennessean op-ed, using his best Moviefone voice. Last year, to hammer home his chaos theory, Crafton spent three minutes addressing the council in Japanese.

"As if we were all about to break out in Mandarin," says Jameson.

Then came Mayor Bill Purcell's veto. With it arrived what appeared to be a makeover for English Only. But in reality, the changes amounted to nothing more than a semantic reshuffling of the deck: The late provision that kept the bill from encompassing all Metro activity, such as the time-sensitive and community-affecting business of dialing 911 to report a mugging or call for an ambulance, had already been a part of the original bill.

With the superficial change in legislative language came a shrewd change in the argument's focus. No longer was the bill aimed at illegals. According to Crafton, his legislative Priority One is the momentum of legal immigrants into mainstream society.

"This is a perfect analogy," says Crafton. "If I wanted to build up my muscles, do I have to go into the gym and lift weights? Or can I sit there and watch someone else lift the weights for me? It's the same way with the English language. You have to get in and jump in and be immersed if you want to succeed. And I know because I've learned a different language and a different culture."

But while Crafton has publicly played the shepherd for the past two years, behind the scenes Crisp has been zapping the flock's haunches to goose it in the right direction. Particularly controversial was a fundraising email Crisp wrote last July, which suggested today's immigrants are an inferior breed to the hardy souls of yore.

"All of us have observed immigrants who have historically been peer-driven to learn English and to assimilate into our great culture," Crisp wrote. "But now it seems that many groups segregate themselves into ethnic enclaves and produce peer pressure to remain 'loyal' to their nation of origin. Sadly in general, today's immigrants are not the same as those of our past and seem to want to reap America's bounty while not committing to our culture."

To immigrant advocates, such statements ignore the proven path of most every American newcomer since the days of Lower East Side tenements: First generation lands, second generation learns.

"The history of our country speaks for itself," says David Ferreira of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Immigrants acculturate themselves. It's a fact. When was the last time you heard someone complaining about Italians not speaking English?"

If Eric Crafton originally intended English Only to unite the city, he has accomplished his goal. Just not, perhaps, in the way he might have hoped.

From church pews to boardrooms, from the far left to the far right, opposition to the bill has made for some unlikely bedfellows. In September, 100 disparate groups, dubbed Nashville for All of Us, made their first public appearance as the official anti-English Only guerrilla movement.

The composition of their ranks was so diverse, it almost sounded like the start of a bad joke: The Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU and a union walk into a bar...

For the opposition, the bill offers a grab-bag of objections. Conservatives sputter and twitch over the half-million dollars in public money the election will cost. Executives wring their hands at the impression the bill will make in a region that's worked to convince foreign companies their money is welcome. Others worry the city will lose millions in lucrative convention business if unions that include rank-and-file Hispanic employees get the idea they're not wanted. They point to Kansas City, where the parks-board appointment of a member of the vigilante Minutemen Civil Defense Corps prompted the National Council of La Raza—the U.S.' largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization—to take their 2009 convention elsewhere.

As for the people who would be most affected by English Only, the Woodbine Community Center attracts them all: Kurds, Somalis, Hispanics. Monday through Thursday, for $10 a week, they hitch rides, swap bus transfers and do whatever it takes to make their ESL classes after work.

Their teacher, a no-bullshit Irishwoman from Chicago, has no time for anyone who wants to tell her that her students aren't trying. Especially in September, when classes threaten to spill into the hall. She sees the truth: There aren't enough hours in the day to work, study and raise a family. Her students' best teachers, she says, are the children they're caring for at home.

"They learn when they're down here," she says, holding a flat hand at waist-level. "Not up here."

Leaving aside the unspoken assumption in Crafton's gym analogy that Nashville's non-English-speaking immigrant population would rather be spotters than lifters, there's the question of what change comes if the bill passes. As a homebuilder, Crafton unsurprisingly focuses on the things he knows: mundane acts like going to Metro for a building permit.

"I don't care if people don't speak anything but Spanish at home," says Crafton. "But when I go visit the government in a non-emergent basis, don't expect every language in the world to be provided because we're not set up for that. Don't expect taxpayers to pay for that service. There are plenty of people who do speak English who can go there and help them."

From this statement, and the bill it supports, you'd think that on-site translators and translation issues were sucking the lifeblood from the city's coffers. So we asked an employee at the Metro Department of Codes, where building permits are issued, if he offered permits in any language besides English. He looked confused and said he didn't know of any. What about when non-English speakers come in, we asked—is there a translator available?

"No, we don't have anyone for that," he said. "They usually just bring someone with 'em."

Small wonder attorney Gregg Ramos, a die-hard English Only foe, says the bill is only "creating a problem where there is none." In other words, the cash-strapped city will spend a half-million dollars on an election with almost certainly a light turnout—and if the measure somehow passes, it will abolish services the city doesn't even offer.

As his data-reliant arguments for education reform suggest, Crafton feels most comfortable dealing with numbers. At Vanderbilt, where he double-majored in math and economics, Crafton says he only struggled with one class. Biology, the study of complex relationships between organisms, didn't suit him. So he dropped it in favor of physics, the most numeric of the natural sciences.

The ultimate irony is that Eric Crafton, champion of the English language, is not the world's most eloquent speaker. Nearly every council member has a personal favorite Crafton malapropism, and during dinner he lets loose with a dandy. Intending to say tangential, Crafton instead comes out with tangenital.

But if Crafton has a fatal flaw, it may be that of the older, successful guy who, when describing his own ascent, falls back on bootstrapping clichés of self-determination. If I can do it, the idea goes, then so can they. And he holds to this maxim as rigidly as you might expect of someone who says he identifies most with Churchill's post-blitzkrieg rallying cry: "Never give in. Never, never, never, never."

"You can't say, 'Eric, think about this from a broader perspective,'" says one council member. "He likes the idea of intellectual engagement. It's that disconnect back to the impact it has on real people, that emotional component."

There are already grumblings that the bill could expose the city's flank to a whole host of constitutional challenges. But for those who know Crafton, there is little doubt that he won't let a negative vote stand as the final say. Because the one thing everyone can agree on about Eric Crafton—his friends, his colleagues, his enemies—is his persistence.

"We've got this powerful weapon," says Emily Evans, speaking of Nashville's most infamous councilman as if he were a ray gun, not a person. "If only we could point it in the right direction."

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